How to win Debating Matters

We are delighted to be able to publish this article by Richard Swan, a teacher who has been involved with the competition since it first began. This advice from Richard should be read in conjunction with other material which explains how Debating Maaters works. But remember- there is no ‘10-point plan’ for success – you need to make your own judgements!

“Let me start by making one thing clear: my team hasn’t won Debating Matters. But we have been to the National Finals twice, and I’ve been involved with the competition ever since its pilot phase. What follows is obviously a very personal view, but it’s based on a great deal of experience. It’s designed for newcomers to debating, or those who have experience in other debating competitions but not this one. Debating Matters is unique, and needs a specific approach. It’s also better than all the others, as will become evident in what follows.

The teacher
The teacher is the key invisible person in the whole set-up. Rarely mentioned in the rules or the guidance, the role of the teacher is paramount in the success of the team. The position is analogous to that of a football manager, though with less kudos and lower pay.  A committed teacher will invest huge amounts of time and energy in developing the team and its preparations.
Playing to win
It is of course entirely legitimate to enter competitions for fun or for the experience of taking part. But ultimately the objective is to win. This is what this guide is about. The first principle is that you should plan to win from the start. That means planning to win the whole competition; which in turn means planning to win every debate.
Team selection
Four speakers in the local round; four to six thereafter. In an ideal world, you’d have six equally good speakers and nobody would need to do more than one debate. I’ve never seen an ideal world. My solution is to aim for balance. Usually it’s good to pair a better speaker with a lesser one, but above all build pairings on the basis of who works best together.  Teamwork is a critical factor in the competition (see below).
The whole raison d’être of Debating Matters is that it features debates about real-world topical issues. The debates are the same ones that are taking place daily in the worlds of politics, science, the arts, in the media and on television. The standard of the students’ debates is entirely dependent on the depth of research they undertake and the knowledge of the topic that they can acquire. The Institute of Ideas issues comprehensive Topic Guides for each topic, but these should only ever be used as a starting point.  Students should find their own evidence and become engaged with the issues they’re debating.
As a minimum, it’s important for students to prepare their opening speeches (together), and to practise them so that they can deliver them confidently from notes. The teacher should help mould these speeches so that they’re effective. Ideally, find other students to act as the opposition, both presenting opposing arguments and attacking the prepared speeches. If the school has a debating society, the whole debate can be tried out in advance.

The Right approach
The motion
There are two traditional complaints about the motions. The first is that you won’t get a choice of which side you debate, and some students get upset that they’re on the ‘wrong’ side of the motion. Well, the motions are worded so that there are valid arguments on both sides, so students should be able to construct a persuasive argument on either. They should think of it as good practice to argue a case that they don’t necessarily believe in personally. They’ll have to do it often enough in their lives, especially if they enter Parliament. The second complaint is about the wording of motion. Forget it. The exact wording of the motion is not as important as the issues behind it. If the motion is about free speech, then there are real and vital issues about this for which people are giving their lives all over the world. Don’t argue about the semantics of the motion – get inside it and pull out what really matters.
The judges
The judges are the most exciting aspect of Debating Matters. They are chosen as experts in their fields, and it’s no surprise for students to find themselves debating difficult topics like stem-cell research and answering questions from leading research scientists and professors. It’s daunting, but it’s great fun. I think. Remember that in the end it’s only the judges who matter – they’re the ones who will decide the result.
It’s impossible to over-stress the importance of teamwork. Your two speakers need to split the workload about 50:50. They need to back each other up, to pick up each others’ points, to rescue each other if they get into difficulties, to consult and scribble notes all the time during the debate. Where a result hangs in the balance, the judges’ opinion of the teamwork can often sway the decision.
Passion and humour
Passion is good. Students who show genuine engagement with the issues always impress. There needs to be restraint too, of course; histrionics and emotional point-scoring always lose. Humour is also good – if you can do it. The judges like humour, but it needs to be well-handled. Better no humour than toe-curling miscues.

The Debate
Opening speeches
These should be between 2 minutes 30 seconds and 3 minutes long. The main advice is that the first speaker should outline what both team members are going to cover, so that the judges and the audience are clear; this also shows teamwork (qv). Each speech should normally contain three main points, with plenty of evidence from the research
The judges’ questions
It’s worth remembering that the judges have the hardest task of all. They’re expected to follow every thread of the debate, while simultaneously assessing the speakers’ manner, content, teamwork, research, response to questions, persuasiveness, and so on. At the same time they’re expected to formulate searching (but fair) questions for each team, and probe their ability to respond. No wonder that judges complain that they can’t take it all in. However, you don’t care about their sufferings. Your team’s job is to answer the judges’ questions directly, calmly, effectively. Don’t ignore questions, or evade them, or hide from them. The judges, after all, decide who wins – so you have got to impress them. The questions will deliberately push the boundaries, so students need to be able to think on their feet – but it’s easier if they’ve done their research thoroughly.
Points from the audience
Audience points and questions should be treated like the judges’ ones. They can’t all be answered, so take the main ones and be sure to nail your points. Further evidence from the research is vital here. Don’t just repeat facts or get trapped in one line of argument; adduce new material, extend the line of reasoning, shift the line of attack if the situation is going against you.
Attacking the opposition
As soon as you receive the motions, decide what the opposition’s main arguments are. If you can counter those, you can win the debate. If you can’t, you’ll lose. In the debate itself, always look for weaknesses or contradictions in the opposition’s speeches, and point these out ruthlessly.
Not giving ground
The worst thing to do is to concede ground. Judges sometimes say they’d prefer it if you admitted the validity of some of the opposition’s points – but don’t. Stick to your guns, stick to the central three arguments you’ve identified in your opening speech. Never give up or let go. Provided you’ve done the research well, this should see you through.
Summing up
Do prepare a summing-up in advance, even if you’re also going to use the time to pick up points made during the debate. A cunning trick is to introduce a new, killer blow at this point, some fact or item that you haven’t used before.

Post mortem afterwards
There are two kinds of post mortem. One: you’ve won. This is easy; celebrate, congratulate yourselves, move on to the next debate. Win that too. Two: you’ve lost. Oh dear. Your speakers, and above all the rest of the team, will protest and criticise the judges, the opposition, the audience, and occasionally the venue, the refreshments and passing motorists. This is natural but should not be indulged for long. In Tony Gilland’s immortal words: ‘Get over it. Move on.’  Win the next debate (even if that’s the next year).”

RIchard Swan, former Vice Principal, The Harvey Grammar School, Folkestone


See our Debate Timing & Structure for a detailed breakdown of a Debating Matters debate.


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